Rio de Janeiro. On Sunday Brazilians appear set to elect Luis Inacio
Lula da Silva of the Workers Party as their president. Of humble
origins, Lula spent his early years working as a machinist in the
metallurgical industry of southern Brazil. As a militant trade unionist
Lula helped launch the Workers Party in 1980 when Brazil was under the
thumb of a military regime. “Lula’s election will break the long
strangle hold the elites and the military have held over our country”
says Francisco Menezes of the Brazilian Institute for Social and
Economic Analysis.

Lula has campaigned for the presidency three times before, only to be
defeated by the entrenched ruling interests who managed to convince
even many of the country’s poor majority that Lula was “uneducated” and
would “ruin” the country. When Lula seized an early lead in this
year’s presidential campaign, domestic and international interests once
again appeared bent on undermining Lula’s candidacy. Funds were sent
abroad, Brazil’s international credit rating dropped, and the country’s
currency, the Real, fell in value by more than 40% against the dollar.
The incumbent president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, along with his
anointed successor in the presidential contest, Jose Serra, claimed
that investors were simply recognizing that Lula’s economic policies
would be “financially disastrous” for Brazil.

But the campaign of fear against Lula did not work this time around as
his lead in the polls only widened. Angelica Viegas, a street vendor
in Rio de Janeiro, reflects the shifting popular sentiment: “This year
I will vote for Lula,” she says. “We need change. Under Cardoso our
life has only gotten worse, there is no work, we see more crime and
misery in the streets.” Official unemployment, which is pegged at
around 8%, more than doubles if the underemployed and itinerant
merchants like Angelica are included.

Angelica’s discontent with the dominant political order extends across
class lines. Even many in Brazil’s upper middle class and some
prominent business people have moved into Lula’s camp. Cardoso during
his eight years in office has followed orthodox neo-liberal policies,
slashing public spending on health and education, selling off state
enterprises, and opening the country to speculative international
capital. The result has been plummeting annual growth rates that
sometimes fail to keep pace with the increase in population. As
domestic markets have contracted, many local manufacturers and
producers are floundering or have folded.

Emir Sader, a renown political scientist at the State University of Rio
de Janeiro declares: “The neo-liberal model has reached a dead end in
Brazil. Under Cardoso our international and domestic debt has
increased eleven fold. The ruling strata, and even sectors of the
military are divided, opening up space for Lula to win the election.
Lula offers a new set of policies that will help domestic producers and
move Brazilian society along the path of social justice.”

Due in part to the severe cuts in welfare and social services under
Cardoso, life in the favelas, the poor barrios surrounding Rio de
Janeiro, has deteriorated noticeably. Criminal elements and drug
traffickers have seized control of the favelas in recent years,
displacing and murdering respected community leaders. Earlier this
year, Benedita da Silva, a Black women from the Workers Party, became
governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro and launched a crack down on
the drug lords and criminal elements. She reduced the homicide rate by
35 percent, which meant that 500 fewer people died compared to the same
period the year before.

On Monday, six days before the elections, gangs from the favelas
launched a vendetta against Benedita and the authorities attempts to
restore law and order. They descended on downtown Rio de Janeiro on
motorbikes, terrorizing the city, burning buses and shutting down banks
and major commercial centers. “We are in danger of becoming another
Colombia,” says Milena Duchiade who runs a bookstore in Rio de Janeiro.
Benedita has called on the Cardoso government to send federal troops
into Rio de Janeiro this Sunday to prevent the gangs from disrupting
the elections.

Polls show Lula enjoying more than twice as much support as his nearest
rival, Jose Serra. Two other major candidates are also in the
presidential contest, and one of them
Anthony Garotinho, may even come in ahead of Serra. Brazilian law
requires a run off election between the two leading contenders in three
weeks if no one receives an absolute majority of the valid votes cast
for president. In the polls Lula is just a percentage point or two shy
of the needed majority with the momentum of recent days indicating he
has a good shot at avoiding the second round. Even if there is a second
round, all polls indicate Lula will win a resounding victory against
Serra or Garotinho and be inaugurated on January 1 as Brazil’s first
working class president.

* Roger Burbach is co-editor, with Ben Clarke, of September 11 and the
U.S. War (City Lights, 2002), and author of the forthcoming book The
Pinochet Affair: Globalizing Human Rights. He is director of the
Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) in Berkeley, CA.

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